Beyond goggles and games: The collaborative metaverse

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Recently, Figma, a collaborative web application for interface design, was acquired by Adobe for $20 billion. It’s worth thinking about why Figma has been so successful and why Adobe was willing to pay so much for it.

Since its inception, Figma has been about collaboration. Yes, it was a great design tool. Yes, it ran completely in the browser; no downloads or installation required. But more than anything, Figma was a tool for collaboration. It was a goal from the beginning. Collaboration was not an afterthought; it was baked in.

My thesis about the metaverse is that it is above all about enabling collaboration. VR glasses and AR glasses? Right, but the metaverse will fail if it only works for those who want to use headsets. Crypto? I strongly object to the idea that everything must be owned – and that every transaction must pay a tax to anonymous middlemen (whether called miners or stakers). In the end, I think that Facebook/Meta, Microsoft and others who say that the metaverse is about “better meetings” are simply headed in the wrong direction. I can tell you – anyone in this business can tell you – that we don’t need better meetings; we need fewer meetings.

But we still need people working together, especially as more and more of us work remotely. So the real question we face is: How do we minimize meetings while still allowing people to work together? After all, meetings are a tool for coordinating people, for transferring information in groups, for circulating ideas outside of one-on-one conversations. They are a tool for collaboration.

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This is exactly what Figma is for: enabling designers to work together on a project in a simple way, without coming into conflict with each other. They are about demonstrating designs to managers and other stakeholders. They’re about brainstorming new ideas (that is, with Figjam) with your team members. And they’re about doing all of this without requiring people to gather in a conference room, with Zoom, or in any of the other conferencing services. The problem with these tools isn’t really the flat screen, the “Brady Bunch” design, or the absence of avatars; the problem is that you still have to interrupt people and get them in the same (virtual) place at the same time, breaking whatever flow they were in.

We don’t need better meetings; we need better tools for collaboration so that we don’t need so many meetings. That’s what the metaverse means for businesses. Tools like GitHub and Google’s Colab are really about collaboration, as are Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365. The metaverse is strongly associated with gaming, and if you look at games like Overwatch and Fortnite, you’ll see that they’re really about collaboration between online players. That’s what makes these games fun. I have nothing against VR glasses, but what makes the experience special is the interaction with other players in real time. You don’t need glasses for that.

Collaboration made Figma worth $20 billion. It is one of the first “enterprise metaverse” applications. It certainly won’t be the last.

Mike Loukides is VP of Emerging Technology Content at O’Reilly Media.

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